Lately, I’ve read a few accounts by writers on getting their first dog. The part of me that’s a big old “Judgie McJudger” starts wondering, “What were they thinking? Did they really believe just tossing a seven week old puppy into a crate was a good idea? How did they think their dog would learn anything if they never trained him?”
And then I think back to my ideas about dogs, way back in the dark ages of my childhood.
No Breakthrough, Just Broken
My first dog lived outside. He had a doghouse and a chain that kept him from escaping to have fun when no one was nearby to watch him. My mom taught him to use the woods as his toilet, never the yard. He learned after having his nose pushed into his own feces a few times.
His life wasn’t all bad. I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child and Duchess was my favorite playmate. (Yes, I know that’s a girl’s name. Now. What do you expect if you let a five year old, who has just seen the Aristocats, name a dog?)
Duchess was quite the hunter and enjoyed pursuing, playing with, and killing the moles and groundhogs stupid enough to visit our yard and garden.
I learned from being with Duchess that a dog was a faithful, nonjudgmental friend. And I learned that I wanted to live with a dog again if I ever got the chance.
But trying to understand a dog’s point of view? Asking myself what caused a dog to do the things he does? That was nowhere in my thoughts.
The First Breakthrough – What Does a Dog Think?
My first breakthrough came when I borrowed Jan Fennell’s The Dog Listener: Learn How To Communicate for Willing Cooperation from my library.
Fennell argued that dogs were descended from wolves. And that they couldn’t live comfortably with humans unless they understood themselves to be subordinate members of the “pack.” Fennell suggested eating before your dogs or going through open doorways first to reinforce your leadership of the pack.
Yes, I can feel the waves of hostility coming off the screen from the dear readers who recognize this as poor science based on bad assumptions. You’re right. All these outmoded ideas have been long debunked. And the scientist whose wolf research spawned much of these notions has disavowed them.
But stay with me for a moment–the notion that a dog would be motivated by something besides doing what I told him was groundbreaking news. Even an incomplete understanding of a dog’s wolf ancestry led me to a new understanding that a dog might have his own desires and needs apart from my own.
It’s one reason I work hard to find common ground and open points of dialogue with the many thousands of people still stuck in using outdated understandings of “pack leadership” and being the alpha in their household. For all I know, these folks might have just had the first breakthrough of many on their way to a better understanding of dog nature and a more satisfying relationship with their own dog.
Although it’s not where I am today, reading Jan Fennell’s book was a breakthrough for me.
The Second Breakthrough – “Misbehaving” May Be a Very Rational Response
I discovered Suzanne Clothier by accident. I picked up her book, Bones Would Rain From the Sky: Deepening our Relationship with Dogs because I was enchanted by the title. And the idea of having a two-way relationship with a dog fascinated me.
But it was reading Clothier’s article on reacting to bad manners that transformed my ideas about dogs. (If you click no other links today, click this one. It’s funny and provocative.)
Angel choirs started singing and a great ray of light came from the sky when I realized that sometimes my dogs were being perfectly rational in their negative responses to other dogs (and sometimes they weren’t).
I started trying to understand how dogs were speaking to each other and to us without taking their cute fuzzy faces as blank slates that expressed nothing but pure puppy joy. I started looking for ear positions, flicking tongues, and highly erect tails. And I started learning how to understand dog.
The other thing I learned from Clothier’s article is to learn how to be a better advocate for my dogs. It’s my responsibility to look out for my dogs first and to make sure they are calm and comfortable with a situation instead of worrying about what other people think.
The Third Breakthrough – ?
I don’t know what new things I’m going to learn in the future. I’m very blessed to learn from all the great dog people who hang out in blog world–gifted amateurs, foster parents, professional trainers. And I’m fortunate to have had some wonderful dogs who have taught me many things and suffered my ignorance without complaint.
When will the next breakthrough come? I don’t know. But it should be a good’un.